TEAR yourself away from your post-festive diet and January booze ban, if you can, and cast your mind back to those heady weeks in the run-up to Christmas.

Great, weren't they? If a little heavy on both the waistline and the pocket.

Fun though booze-fuelled office parties are, particularly since smartphones and Facebook ensured that what goes on tour most definitely doesn't stay on tour, they can get a bit wearing after a while.

Which is why we thought it would be nice to spend at least one of the cold December nights not listening to Slade, Wizzard and pals, but doing something decidedly un-Christmassy.

Having watched Premier League draw specialists Sunderland labour to yet another stalemate in the afternoon, my wife Dani and I needed to lift our spirits and stopping for a curry on the drive home seemed just the ticket.

Having read good things online about Spice Raja, in Easington Lane, we had booked a table for 7.30pm.

The Black Cats' latest draw had sapped our energy somewhat, particularly with Dani 23 weeks pregnant at the time.

Keen to expedite matters - and get home in time for Match of the Day - we called the restaurant and asked if we could bring our booking forward to, well, as soon as possible.

"No problem", said a helpful voice on the other end of the line, "come whenever you like". So far, so good.

Although our idea had been to take an hour or two's break from the Christmas build-up, we found Spice Raja to be decorated in a pleasantly understated festive fashion.

Indeed, the overall decor was what you might describe as modern, with the bouncing chairs a particularly funky touch. Wouldn't like to try them after a few beers, mind.

We needn't have worried about changing our table time, as we were the only ones in the place when we arrived.

It meant the excellent and helpful staff were all the more attentive. Being a Saturday night, it didn't take long for more punters to start rolling in, either to dine in or avail themselves of the establishment's popular takeaway service.

The increasing footfall didn't detract from the service, which was faultless throughout, but we were glad to have got our order in before the party of eight that followed us in.

Food started arriving and we each enjoyed a poppadom (70p each, textbook) and pickles (70p each, cut above the usual) before our starters arrived.

Dani's onion bhaji (£2.70) had the desired crispy crunch and tasted fresh, while my meaty sheek kebabs (£3.65) did not disappoint either.

For mains, we agreed to avoid falling into our usual habit of each ordering our own rices and naans, a policy that invariably leaves us either uncomfortably stuffed or wasteful.

So we decided to share a garlic naan (£2.50), a mushroom pilau (£2.95) and a spinach-rich sag aloo (£3.35) between us.

It wasn't until the waiter brought these sundries to our table, along with our mains, Dani's chicken tikka balti (£6.95) and my chicken tikka palak (£7.50), that we realised our table was almost too small to adequately contain all this food.

So much for going easy on the ordering, but it was well worth the guilt that followed.

Both our mains were excellent and although the garlic naan reminded us slightly of a garlic pizza bread, we could hardly complain, having knowingly ordered a side dish that majors in both bread and garlic.

In truth, such was the portion size of our mains, we could easily have managed without the sag aloo, a spicy potato and spinach-based accompaniment, but Dani is eating for two, not that I can rely on any such excuse.

The rice was tasty, although was maybe a slightly modest portion for two sharing, but we hardly noticed, having inadvertently ordered half the menu against our better judgement.

Well-nourished, we waved away the dessert menu when it was tentatively offered, but were glad to cleanse our palates with a few segments of fresh orange, which came our way just before the bill.

It came to £42.15 for all those spicy treats, a large Indian beer and a diet coke for the designated driver.

Another plus for Spice Raja is its excellent website, which has details of all the latest special offers for those keen to get the most bang for their buck.

We can't recommend this place highly enough, it is well worth making a special trip to Easington Lane for and, for us, it was the perfect preparation for all the festive over-indulgence that followed. Now where did I put my gym card?

Spice Raja, 181 High Street, Easington Lane, Houghton-le-Spring DH5 0JS.

Opening hours: 5.30pm to 11pm, Monday to Sunday Tel: 0191-526-7687 spiceraja.co.uk

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality: 9 Surroundings: 8 Service: 10 Value: 8